New Life for the Zombie Film

in 52nd Melbourne International Film Festival

by Mike Walsh

The jury at the 2003 Melbourne International Film Festival awarded the FIPRESCI Prize to Undead, a low budget zombie film, made by two brothers from Brisbane, Peter and Michael Spierig. The award citation praised the film “for daring to be everything that Australian films are not supposed to be: part of a popular, disreputable genre”. The jury also commended the film “as an entertainment that is also political, while showing the pleasures of hands-on filmmaking”.

The film is set in the small town of Berkeley, which suddenly finds itself the target of fireballs which plummet to earth and produce the usual effects that one associates with zombie invasion – a lurching, slack-jawed populace with a predilection for the consumption of human brains. Inevitably, a small group of survivors steels itself for battle, not only against zombies but also a mysterious alien presence which is also at work.

The FIPRESCI citation emphasized the way in which the film sails into the prevailing winds of its local film industry. Because they tend to be government subsidized as well as conscious of the imperative not to take on Hollywood on the terrain of popular genre filmmaking, Australian films are more likely to be middlebrow cinema-of-quality productions which wear their theatrical bases on their sleeves. Dialogue and capital A Acting are stressed over any robust connection to screen culture or history which might produce works which are either formally challenging or disreputably popular.

Other Australian features shown in Melbourne (Sue Brooks’ Japanese Story, Tony McNamara’s The Rage in Placid Lake, and Kathryn Millard’s Travelling Light) provided ample evidence of the aridness of this government-supported filmmaking.

The Spierig brothers seem determined to turn this situation around. Their modestly-budgeted film ($US600,000) was financed out of their work directing television commercials in their home state of Queensland in Australia’s north-east. The film enjoyed no government support, because what government agency would encourage a zombie movie?

More’s the pity. The horror genre is one of the most vigorous international forms at the moment, and the zombie sub-genre offers rich ground for strong social and political metaphor. Given the Australian government’s recent policy of mandatory detention of refugees in outback prison camps, the film’s final image of a desert prison full of zombies is a resonant one. The twist in the tail is that it is the local citizens who keep on turning into zombies. While our heroes spend most of their time struggling against aliens, they are finally forced into a realization that they should re-think this policy. The sub-text of the film is that one should remain open to outside forces for a renewal of cultural life.

Of course, this is a rather high-minded way to read a film that takes a lot of pleasure in blowing holes in people and chopping bits off them. While they may know how to do this pretty stylishly in Hong Kong, there is a good deal of freshness in seeing young filmmakers on the fringes of another filmmaking tradition seeking to absorb the influences of John Woo as well as George Romero, while bringing something distinctive of their own to the mix.

Undead presents a new direction for Australian filmmakers, or perhaps the renewal of an older direction marked out almost twenty-five years ago when George Miller made Mad Max.